Wilmington shooting stats not fully reported, but still haunt city neighborhoods

Jeanne Kuang Xerxes Wilson
Delaware News Journal

A couple in a white Ford rental thought nothing of it when they pulled up next to the driver who had just sped past them in a green pickup truck.

Stopped at a red light on Fourth Street on a sunny Saturday morning last October, the truck driver swore at them through his window, prompting an argument. But the light turned green, and the heated exchange ended. The couple drove through the East Side neighborhood on their way home.

At 11th and Pine streets, they saw the same green truck behind them.

“All of a sudden, a gunshot goes through the window,” said the wife, who asked for her name to be withheld out of fear of retaliation.

She felt a bullet whiz past her head from behind and pierce the front windshield. They yelled for the kids to duck as gunfire met metal and glass around them. 

A recent spate of gun violence that has killed five and injured 13 others since Wednesday continued Monday night in Wilmington, with at least 50 shots fired.

When it was over, her 7-year-old daughter was bleeding. Her husband sped to Wilmington Hospital, police cars trailing them.

It's a gunshot incident that went unreported to the public by Wilmington police, one of likely hundreds of gunfire incidents each year that pass with little or no public acknowledgment by authorities, but which are heard – and sometimes felt – by city residents.  

That estimate is built off of data derived from ShotSpotter, a microphone array across the city that records incidences of gunfire even when no one is hit by a bullet.

Police regularly tell the public about shootings where someone is directly hit, but the ShotSpotter data show that many more incidences of gunfire go unnoted by police. After sharing that data in the past, attempts to get updated statistics in recent years about gunshots have been rejected by city police.

But that does not mean that shooting incidents that occur without official acknowledgment don't have a lasting effect on city residents.

The girl in the white rental was treated that October day for a graze on her head and a gunshot wound to her hand, in the flap of skin between her thumb and forefinger, according to her mother and the child’s hospital discharge document.

Police were already seeking a 30-year-old man driving a green pickup truck in connection to other crimes, according to court records; the couple picked him out of a lineup. He was arrested that night and charged with first-degree assault, illegal firearm possession and reckless endangerment.

Her daughter was tough, not even crying through the ordeal. But her son was traumatized, the mother said.

The first time the family got into a car after the incident, an Uber, the boy began to panic when the driver sped up.

“My children had never been through anything traumatic until that day,” said the mother, who has lived in Riverside for 10 years but is considering moving out of state for her family’s safety. “It kills me that no matter how hard I try, something bad still happened in their life.”

The girl's case is an example of a gunfire incident that creates traumatic experiences for many city residents, but goes largely unnoted by city officials.

Over the past decade, Delaware’s largest city has seen anywhere from 71 to 166 shootings a year that caused injury or death, shootings the police routinely note in press releases.

For every one of those incidents, according to a News Journal analysis, two to three other incidences of gunfire have been heard around the city and are recorded by the police department’s gunshot detectors. Those frequently go unnoted by officials. 

More than 1,300 people were hit by gunfire in Wilmington between 2011 and 2020, nearly a fifth of them killed. When no one is injured by gunshots, it can be a relief to worried communities. "Shots fired" incidents pale in comparison to injuries and deaths. 

But for many residents, the effects of hearing the two kinds of gunfire can be the same, said J.J. Francis, a community advocate who works in constituent services in the office of Sen. Chris Coons.

“The gunfire that hits victims and the gunfire that rings out that doesn't hit victims are in essence the same, in strengthening and normalizing this trauma” among local communities, he said.

Hedgeville community advocate JJ Francis

Francis grew up in the Hedgeville and Ninth Ward areas of Wilmington. He said he recalls hearing gunshots about once a week. It often felt more frequent than that, because word traveled quickly when friends and family members talked about incidents in other neighborhoods.

Yet it’s not publicly known just how many times guns are fired around the city, outside of the times it results in injury. Unlike other departments in Delaware, Wilmington police usually do not publish notices of shots-fired incidents.

Darryl Chambers, who runs a violence intervention program in Wilmington and has examined community exposures to violence as a University of Delaware researcher, said he’s long been interested in studying the effects of hearing gunfire on residents’ health. Youth who attend his program often come in saying they heard gunshots the night before, he said.

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For decades, studies have shown that childhood exposure to violence is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, worsening behavior and performance in school, and future violent behavior.

“When we look at the impact of gun violence, a lot of times we look at how many times a person gets shot; what we fail to mention is the impact of someone hearing gunshots every day or seeing people get shot after but not hit,” Chambers said. “We wanted to see how many shots people have been exposed to in those particular neighborhoods, but we had a hard time trying to track down that data.”

Darryl Chambers of the Community Intervention Team.

Behind the analysis

Estimating the total scale of gunfire incidents around Wilmington is an imperfect task. 

The News Journal’s estimate is based on data collected for Wilmington police by ShotSpotter, a company that helps police detect and locate gunfire in order to respond to the scene immediately.

The city began using ShotSpotter in 2014, initially paying $415,000 for the technology. The Police Department is now working to integrate the gunshot detectors with its security camera system, officials said last spring.

In a 2½-year period between June 2014 and January 2017, ShotSpotter alerted Wilmington police to 918 incidences of gunshots. An incident could be a single shot heard or dozens of rounds discharged. In that same time period, The News Journal’s crime database shows police tallied 354 shootings – incidents in which someone was hit by gunfire. 

Using dates, times and locations, The News Journal was able to match 111 incidences of gunfire captured by ShotSpotter to shootings reported by authorities, leaving 858 other incidences of gunfire that rang out around Wilmington. That’s 2.3 times the number of reported shootings during those 2½ years.

The figure could be deflated. Many of the shootings that resulted in injury from that time period were not found in the ShotSpotter database for unknown reasons.

The News Journal excluded all gunfire incidents that ShotSpotter personnel labeled as either “gunshots or fireworks” to achieve a conservative estimate. 

Police previously told the newspaper the same shots-fired incident could have been recorded twice by different microphones. ShotSpotter spokeswoman Liz Einbinder said two incidents that are recorded near each other at close to the same time are likely capturing return gunfire.

To reduce the likelihood of counting duplicates, The News Journal also collapsed multiple gunfire incidents that were recorded in proximity of each other and within the same minute into a single shots-fired incident.

Asked whether the Police Department believes the analysis is accurate, Wilmington police spokesman David Karas did not respond.

In February 2017, weeks into the new administration of current Mayor Michael Purzycki, the Wilmington Police Department provided the ShotSpotter data cited above to The News Journal in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Since then, the Police Department has refused to make more recent ShotSpotter data available. 

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In rejecting recent requests, the department cited exemptions from public record laws that give it the legal authority to withhold information, but do not require it to do so. Karas said releasing the information could compromise investigations. 

The News Journal appealed recent rejections to the Delaware Department of Justice, the state department tasked with determining whether public bodies are lawfully concealing public information. 

In a written decision, an attorney for the DOJ stated the ShotSpotter data could be considered an investigatory file that can be withheld by the city. 

'Routine gunfire being normal'

But in Wilmington neighborhoods, the gunshots do not go unnoticed.

As an example, a spate of gunfire was heard around 8:30 pm in the 2300 block of N. Madison St. on Jan 7. Police did not confirm the number of gunshots and said the incident is under active investigation.

Last month, a barrage of shots hit cars and homes in the 300 block of W. 29th St. Neighbors on social media reported dozens of rounds being fired, and photos showed at least 50 evidence markers indicating where shell casings landed in the street. Police revealed very little about the shootout, saying only that they responded to "a shots fired complaint with property damage."

BACKGROUND:Recent spate of violence continues with barrage of gunfire in Wilmington Monday night

And in October, the 30-year-old man driving a green pickup truck was accused of shooting into a car, sending the 7-year-old girl to the hospital with graze wounds. Police do not consider that case to be a shooting and did not announce it to the public.

While the girl’s discharge document states she was treated for a gunshot wound, a detective who visited the hospital said her injuries were “lacerations” which “appeared to be caused by flying glass which was a result of discharging the firearm,” according to court records.

Karas, the Wilmington police spokesman, said police “determined through further investigation and in consultation with medical staff that the injury that was sustained was not a gunshot wound.”

Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy gives the Wilmington City Council's public safety committee an update in the city's shootings in March 2020.

Police Chief Robert Tracy has said he’s put an emphasis on the department treating shots-fired incidents as seriously as other shootings.

“I have detectives going out to more and more scenes than ever before,” Tracy told the City Council last spring, asking for funds to purchase two more patrol vehicles for detectives. “I want our detectives investigating every one of these cases as if somebody had been shot because there might be retaliation and we’re getting great success in lowering the amount of shooting incidents and also apprehending offenders.”

Wilmington police did not provide a clearance rate for shots-fired incidents when requested.

“Our department continues to treat these incidents seriously, and we issue public releases following arrests made in these cases,” spokesman Karas wrote in an email. “Some arrests involved in the large-scale indictment that was announced late last year are also in connection with shots fired incidents.”

For Francis, the Hedgeville community leader, it took leaving Wilmington when he attended college to realize that frequently hearing gunfire isn’t normal.

“A lot of communities here in Wilmington and other urban neighborhoods are under the same regulatory process of routine gunfire being normal,” he said. “There are a lot of indirect consequences, of how communities are shaped in their responses in their daily routines, knowing that gunfire could erupt at any moment.”

Jeanne Kuang covered Wilmington for The News Journal. Xerxes Wilson covers courts for The News Journal. Contact him at xwilson@delawareonline.com.